Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

Captain Gordon and the Raccoon Roughs

The outbreak of the Civil War, the most momentous conflict of recent times, was marked by a wave of fervent enthusiasm in the States of the South which swept with the swiftness of a prairie fire over the land. Pouring in multitudes into the centres of enlistment, thousands and tens of thousands of stalwart men offered their services in defence of their cause, gathering into companies and regiments far more rapidly than they could be absorbed. This state of affairs, indeed, existed in the North as well as in the South, but it is with the extraordinary fervor of patriotism in the latter that we are here concerned, and especially with the very interesting experience of General John B. Gordon, as related by him in his "Reminiscences of the Civil War."

When the war began Gordon, as he tells us, was practically living in three States. His house was in Alabama, his post-office in Tennessee, and he was engaged in coal-mining enterprises in the mountains of Georgia, the locality being where these three States meet in a point. No sooner was the coming conflict in the air than the stalwart mountaineers of the mining district became wild with eagerness to fight for the Confederacy, and Gordon, in whom the war spirit burned as hotly as in any of them, needed but a word to gather about him a company of volunteers. They unanimously elected him their captain, and organized themselves at once into a cavalry company, most of them, like so many of the sons of the South, much preferring to travel on horseback than on foot.

As yet the war was only a probability, and no volunteers had been called for. But with the ardor that had brought them together, Gordon's company hastened to offer their services, only to be met with the laconic and disappointing reply, "No cavalry now needed."

What was to be done? They did not relish the idea of giving up their horses, yet they wanted to fight still more than to ride, and the fear came upon them that if they waited till cavalry was needed they might be quite lost sight of in that mountain corner and the war end before they could take a hand in it. This notion of a quick end to the war was common enough at that early day, very few foreseeing the vastness of the ding conflict; and, dreading that they might be left out in the cold, the ardent mountaineers took a vote on the question, "Shall we dismount and go as infantry?" This motion was carried with a shout of approval, and away went the stalwart recruits without arms, without uniform, without military training, with little beyond the thirst to fight, the captain knowing hardly more of military tactics than his men. They had courage and enthusiasm, and felt that all things besides would come to them.

As for arms suitable for modern warfare, the South at that time was sadly lacking in them. Men looked up their old double-barreled shot-guns and squirrel rifles, and Governor Brown, of Georgia, set men at work making what were called "Joe Brown's pikes," being a sort of steel-pointed lances or bayonets on poles, like those used by pikemen in mediaeval warfare. In modern war they were about as useful as knitting-needles would have been. Governor Brown knew this well enough, but the volunteers were coming in such numbers and were so eager to fight that the pikes were made more to satisfy them than with hope of their being of any service in actual war.

Gordon's company was among the earliest of these volunteers. Reluctantly leaving their horses, and not waiting for orders, they bade a quick adieu to all they had held dear and set off cheerily for Milledgeville, then the capital of Georgia. They were destined to a sad disappointment. On reaching Atlanta they were met by a telegram from the governor, who had been advised of their coming, telling them to go back home and wait until advised that they were wanted.

This was like a shower of cold water poured on the ardor of the volunteers. Go home? After they had cut loose from their homes and started for the war? They would do nothing of the kind; they were on foot to fight and would not consent to be turned back by Governor Brown or any one else. The captain felt very much like his men. He too was an eager Confederate patriot, but his position was one demanding obedience to the constituted authorities, and by dint of much persuasion and a cautious exercise of his new authority he induced his men to board the train heading back for their homes.

But the repressed anger of the rebellious mountaineers broke forth again when the engine-bell rang and the whistle gave its shrill starting signal. Some of the men rushed forward and tore out the coupling, of the foremost car, and the engine was left in condition to make its journey alone. While the trainmen looked on in astonishment the mountaineers sprang from the train, gathered round their captain, and told him that they had made up their minds on the matter and were not going back. They had enlisted for the war and intended to go to it; if Governor Brown would not take them, some other governor would.

There was nothing left for the young captain but to lead his undisciplined and rebellious company through Atlanta in search of a suitable camping-place. Their disregard of discipline did not trouble him greatly, for in his heart he sympathized with them, and he knew well that in their rude earnestness was the stuff of which good soldiers are made.

Gordon gives an interesting and amusing description of the appearance his men made and the interest they excited in Atlanta's streets. These were filled with citizens, who looked upon the motley crew with a feeling in which approval was tempered by mirth. The spectacle of the march—or rather the straggle—of the mountaineers was one not soon to be forgotten. Utterly untrained in marching, they walked at will, no two keeping step, while no two were dressed alike. There were almost as many different hues and cuts in their raiment as there were men in their ranks. The nearest approach to a uniform was in their rough fur caps made of raccoon skins, and with the streaked and bushy tail of the raccoon hanging down behind.

The amusement of the people was mingled with curiosity. "Are you the captain of this company?" some of them asked Gordon, who was rather proud of his men and saw nothing of the grotesque in their appearance.

"I am, sir," he replied, in a satisfied tone. What company is it, captain?"

As yet the company had no name other than one which he had chosen as fine sounding and suitable, but had not yet mentioned to the men.

"This company is the Mountain Rifles," said the captain, proudly.

His pride was destined to a fall. From a tall mountaineer in the ranks came, in words not intended for his ears, but plainly audible, the disconcerting words,

"Mountain hell! We are no Mountain Rifles. We are the Raccoon Roughs."

And Raccoon Roughs they continued through all the war, Gordon's fine-spun name being never heard of again. The feeble remnant of the war-scarred company which was mustered out at Appomattox was still known as Raccoon Roughs.

Who would have them, since Governor Brown would not, was now the question. Telegrams sped out right and left to governors of other States, begging a chance for the upland patriots. An answer came at length from Governor Moore, of Alabama, who consented to incorporate the Raccoon Roughs and their captain in one of the new regiments he was organizing. Gordon gladly read the telegram to his eager company, and from their hundred throats came the first example of the "rebel yell" he had ever heard,—a wild and thrilling roar that was to form the inspiration to many a mad charge in later years.

No time was lost by the gallant fellows in setting out on their journey to Montgomery. As they went on they found the whole country in a blaze of enthusiasm. No one who saw the scene would have doubted for a moment that the South was an ardent unit in support of its cause. By day the troop trains were wildly cheered as they passed; as night bonfires blazed on the hills and torchlight processions paraded the streets of the towns. As no cannon were at hand to salute the incoming volunteers, blacksmith anvils took their place, ringing with the blows of hammers swung by muscular arms. Every station was a throng of welcoming people, filling the air with shouts and the lively sound of fife and drum, and bearing banners of all sizes and shapes, on which Southern independence was proclaimed and the last dollar and man pledged to the cause. The women were out as enthusiastically as the men; staid matrons and ardent maids springing upon the cars, pinning blue cockades on the lapels of the new soldiers' coats, and singing the war-songs already in vogue, the favorite "Dixie" and the "Bonnie Blue Flag," in whose chorus the harsh voices of the Raccoon Roughs mingled with the musical tones of their fair admirers.

Montgomery was at length reached to find it thronged with shouting volunteers, every man of them burning with enthusiasm. Mingled with them were visiting statesmen and patriotic citizens, for that city was the cradle of the new-born Confederacy and the centre of Southern enthusiasm. Every heart was full of hope, every face marked with energy, a prayer for the success of the cause on every lip. Never had more fervent and universal enthusiasm been seen. On the hills and around the capital cannon boomed welcome to the inflowing volunteers, wagons rumbled by carrying arms and ammunition to the camps, on every street marched untrained but courageous recruits. As for the Raccoon Roughs, Governor Moore kept his word, assigning them to a place in the Sixth Alabama Regiment, of which Captain Gordon, unexpectedly and against his wishes, was unanimously elected major.

Such were the scenes which the coming war excited in the far South, such the fervid enthusiasm with which the coming conflict for Southern independence was hailed. So vast was the number of volunteers, in companies and in regiments, each eager to be accepted, that the Hon. Leroy P. Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy, was fairly overwhelmed by the flood of applicants that poured in on him day and night. Their captains and colonels waylaid him on the streets to urge the immediate acceptance of their services, and he was obliged to seek his office by roundabout ways to avoid the flood of importunities. It is said that before the Confederate government left Montgomery for Richmond, about three hundred and sixty thousand volunteers, very many of them from the best element of the Southern population, had offered to devote their lives and fortunes to their country's cause.

Many striking examples of this outburst of enthusiasm and patriotic devotion might be adduced, but we must content ourselves with one, cited as an instance in point by General Gordon. This was the case of Mr. W. C. Heyward, of South Carolina, a West Point graduate and a man of fortune and position. The Confederate government was no sooner organized than Mr. Heyward sought Montgomery, tendering his services and those of a full regiment enlisted by him for the war. Such was the pressure upon the authorities, and so far beyond the power of absorption at that time the offers of volunteers, that Mr. Heyward sought long in vain for an interview with the Secretary of War. When this was at last obtained be found the ranks so filled that it was impossible to accept his regiment. Returning home in deep disappointment, but with his patriotism unquenched, this wealthy and trained soldier joined the Home Guards and died in the war as a private in the ranks.

Such was the unanimity with which the sons of the South, hosts of them armed with no better weapons than old-fashioned flint and steel muskets, double-barreled shot-guns, and long-barreled squirrel rifles, rushed to the defence of their States, with a spontaneous and burning enthusiasm that has never been surpassed. The impulse of self-defence was uppermost in their hearts. It was not the question of the preservation of slavery that sustained them in the terrible conflict for four years of desolating war. It was far more that of the sovereignty of the States. The South maintained that the Union formed under the Constitution was one of consent and not of force; that each State retained the right to resume its independence on sufficient cause, and that the Constitution gave no warrant for the attempt to invade and coerce a sovereign State. It was for this, not to preserve slavery, that the people sprang as one man to arms and fought as men had rarely fought before.